Ever wondered where the term “busy as a bee” came from? Well, here’s your answer: Honeybees work day and night in their hives making an enchanting and intricately built geometric phenomenon that we call honeycomb. How — and why — do those little fluffy guys all work together to produce the hexagonal honeycomb shape that a lot of people know and love? Simple: It’s where they live and store their honey.
Honeybees are fascinating for a number of reasons. Their work ethic, the sweet honey they make, and their intricate social structures are just a few. But the question we’re here to get to the bottom of is why bees create the intricate wonder that is honeycomb.
Why Do Bees Make Honeycomb?
While honey is as commonplace as ketchup, bees do not necessarily create honey for our benefit. Though humans can enjoy the many health benefits offered by honey, it’s essential for bees to survive the winter months. During these cold months, they are unable to gather nectar and pollen outside of the hive. This results in bees having to rely on the honey resources they have built up as the “winter cluster.” Because this is so essential for bees to survive, they have perfected the art of the hexagonal architectural design that makes up honeycomb.
If you’re wondering how a group of bees choose the perfect location to build the honeycomb, it’s primarily achieved by finding a surface they feel suitable for their hive. This is typically in wooden structures, rock crevices, undersides of roofs, or really any place they feel provides them with protection from the elements. After they find a safe and protected place, the group of bees begin construction at the top and work their way down.
Why Is Honeycomb Hexagonal?
Why the hexagon, of all shapes? Bees are extremely intelligent, and they happen to be excellent mathematicians. Honeybees have figured out that packing a hexagonal pattern together over and over again creates the most efficient use of space. This shape allows the bee to fit into the structure, as well as contains the nectar and stores it. Let’s call this their very own honey jar. Not only do the honeycomb cells hold the bees’ honey stores and nectar, but they also store pollen, water, and larvae.
How Is Honeycomb Created?
The honeycomb we sink our teeth into as a sweet snack is primarily made up of honey and beeswax. Here’s how the bees bring these things together.
Worker bees forage for food and gather nectar from different plants. The pollen they carry mixes with a specialized enzyme, which is then transferred from their tongues to other bees’ tongues. This process enables the nectar to be evaporated to later become honey. The glands of the worker bees convert the sugar contents of honey into wax.
Bees use their eight pairs of wax glands to produce wax, which are positioned on the underside of their abdomen. This substance oozes through their pores to produce tiny flakes of wax on their abdomens. Bees will chew the wax or do it for a neighbor worker bee until the wax becomes soft. After the beeswax becomes a more clay-like material, bees bond large quantities of wax into the cells of a honeycomb.
Fun fact: The colony of bees crowding together creates the temperature necessary to control the texture of the wax inside of the beehive.
Bees have to consume eight ounces of honey in order to produce one ounce of wax. Bees pollinate approximately 125,000 flowers to produce one ounce of honey — which means bees have to pollinate one million flowers to make enough honey to make one ounce of wax. Meaning they have to be mighty efficient at gathering nectar that will become honey.
To tip off their fellow bees to the best sources of nectar, bees do what’s called a waggle dance. This little dance is a unique form of communication that signals the distance and direction of the nectar source so that other bees can find it. The waggle dance works so well, scientists have been able to use it to map where bees have foraged. Thanks to the waggle dance, the honeycomb-making cycle continues.
Once bees have created wax cells, they put those cells to work! A finished honeycomb can support up to 30 times a bees’ own weight, storing honey in its upper sections, pollen in the rows below that, followed by worker brood cells, drone brood cells, and queen cells at the bottom of the structure.
Honeycomb: A Masterpiece
There is no wasted space with the hexagonal shapes put together over and over again. The hexagonal pattern and structure of the honeycomb save the bees time and energy. They can use this saved energy to complete other essential jobs, such as finding nectar, which is when they also carry pollen from flower to flower, allowing new plants to grow.
Can you believe how hardworking these tiny creatures are? These insects may be small but between pollination and honey production, they make a huge impact.
At Pass the Honey, we’re committed to letting the bees do their thing. We partner with generational beekeepers using regenerative methods, like only sourcing 20% of the honeycomb, which encourages healthy hive activity.